Book Review: Death and the Conjuror

Fans of locked-room mysteries should love debut author Tom Mead’s historical mystery, Death and the Conjuror. In 1936 London, elderly showman and conjuror Joseph Spector is called on to aid Scotland Yard detective George Flint, who hopes Spector’s skills at misdirection can lead him to figure out what really happened in a strange case that involves not one, but two locked-room murders.

German immigrant (sometimes referred to as a psychologist and sometimes as a psychiatrist) Dr. Anselm Rees has recently relocated to London, along with his daughter, Dr. Lidia Rees.(Mead wisely set the story a few years before the gathering war clouds would have further complicated the story.) The elder Dr. Rees has gradually acquired three patients—musician Floyd Stenhouse, actor Della Cookson, and author Claude Weaver.

Lidia and her playboy boyfriend Marcus Bowman arrive home late one night and learn Dr. Rees’s throat has been slit. For one reason and another, all three patients become suspects, along with an unidentified evening caller, daughter Lidia (who stands to inherit), and her boyfriend (who needs the money). The door to the office was locked that evening, as were the French windows, with their keys on the inside.

On the evening of another unproductive day of investigation, Flint receives an urgent call from the musician Stenhouse, who believes he’s being followed. Flint and his sergeant hear a shot, and fruitlessly chase a shadowy figure. Upon returning to the apartment building, they discover the second locked-room puzzle: the elevator operator is dead inside his small cage.

Although Spector provides occasional interesting disquisitions about the creation of illusions, his potential seemed not fully exploited. Stories about illusionists and (real-life) magicians usually include some spectacular demonstrations. In this story, inexorable logic wins out. Because the setup of the two murders was so complicated, many pages are required to explain them, as various theories are posed and discarded.

You may have the sense—despite the automobiles, hairstyles, and a few other signals—that this story could just have easily taken place fifty years earlier, given the dialog, the background narration, and many of the characters’ attitudes. It has a definite old-fashioned feel, which, on one hand, is part of its charm, and on the other, may distance you from engaging with the characters.

It is a locked-room puzzle in that fine tradition, with a surfeit of clues, red herrings, and suspicions. The clever and complicated plots the unknown antagonist concocts will likely keep you guessing all the way through.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight

If you enjoyed Riku Onda’s previous mystery translated into English, The Aosawa Murders, you’ll find many of the same attributes in her new psychological thriller, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight. It offers that same dreamy feeling and a quality of uncertainty about the characters’ perceptions. It’s almost as if the story were told by those very fish, trying to make sense of the light and dark around them through a veil of water.

The short chapters of this new book are related alternately by Chiaki (Aki) and Chihiro (Hiro), who met in the tennis club at college and were immediately attracted to each other. Paired up to play doubles, it seemed like they had played together their whole lives. When their parents learn about their friendship, they reveal that the young people are, in fact, brother and sister, twins separated when their mother could no longer take care of them both and gave daughter Aki up for adoption. Since age three, they were raised as only children.

To recapture the lost years of siblinghood, Aki and Hiro decide to share a flat in Tokyo and are very happy for a time. The relationship falls apart after a mountain hike when their guide is killed in a fall, and they are each wracked by suspicion that the other somehow engineered the tragedy. The novel takes place on their last night together.

Every chapter peels away another layer, as each of them is intent on extracting a confession about the guide’s death from the other. It turns out that the guide is connected to the twins in a way that might provide a motive for murder, but did it? Author Onda spreads out the revelations, and in large part, they’re the siblings’ differing impressions of the tragedy.

Unexpected fragments of memory find their places in the puzzle of their lives, as the deepening mystery flashes, twists, and turns much like the eponymous fish that Aki at one point describes.

The translation by Alison Watts effectively conveys this sense of gradual discovery—about the guide, about the siblings’ relationship, about their un-twin-like misinterpretation of the other’s state of mind, about the past, and, perhaps even about their futures. Onda has a lovely, slow-moving and relatively unadorned style of writing. But beneath the placid surface is a tidal wave of emotion. She minimizes physical description in lieu of emotional nuance, resulting in a complex and memorable story.  

Onda is a well-known Japanese novelist, whose works have won numerous top awards and been adapted for both film and television there. The Aosawa Murders was the first to be translated into English. It won a Best Novel award from the Mystery Writers of Japan and was selected as a 2020 Notable Book by The New York Times.

The Male Point of View

Kevin Tipple, on his wonderful Kevin’s Corner website, which includes mystery and crime fiction-related news, a blog, and book reviews, included the following guest post from me last Sunday. It covers an issue people often ask me about. Check him out!

Thank you, Kevin, for your willingness to host a blog essay related to my new mystery/thriller Architect of Courage. In it, protagonist Archer Landis is a successful Manhattan architect whose orderly life falls into disarray when the woman he loves is murdered. That’s just the beginning of a summer of disastrous events that befall him, which put him and everyone around him in danger. Events that, ultimately, he has to try to sort out.

I’m pleased with the reader response, and one question people often ask is, what was it like to write a book from the male point-of-view? First, I never considered having a woman protagonist for this story, so I had a male firmly in mind from the get-go. I took into account that he is a successful businessman and a lot of the story’s action takes place in his office, not at home. His role as the leader of a prominent architectural firm is essential to who he is, and fits his “let’s get on with it” personality. You see this in his interactions with his staff, helping them move forward through a variety of difficulties.

In thinking about this post for you, Kevin, I realized that, in fact, most of the principal characters in this novel are men: Landis’s two principal associates, his lawyer, the police detectives, his right-hand when situations become dangerous. Many conversations occur among these characters, and in them, especially, I worked on the gender issue. Women (at least women of my generation) were socialized to express themselves tentatively, “It’s just a suggestion, but would you like a roast beef sandwich? Or, maybe . . . something else?” whereas a man would say, “Let’s have a roast beef sandwich” and be done with it. Of course I’m exaggerating. (See how I did that? Tried to get you to go along with my example by using the “of course.”)

I reviewed all the dialog numerous times to make sure the “weasel-words”—the things you say to minimize importance or weaken a statement—were removed, except in instances where the speaker was genuinely unsure. I don’t know, what do you think? (See?) A document search found every instance of the word “need,” which I usually replaced with “want.” There’s a subtle difference between “I need you to finish that floor plan” and “I want you to finish.” Once you go on the hunt for weasel-words, they’re everywhere!

By excising that fluff from the men’s conversation, the women’s voices became more distinctive. Yes, there are women in Architect of Courage! One character readers single out is Landis’s receptionist/assistant Deshondra. She’s young and a practitioner of upspeak? You know what I mean? It makes sense that her conversation would be kind of (there I go again) a counterpoint for the men’s because of her youth, inexperience, and gender.

All this focus on how Landis expresses himself provides a window into the more fundamental issues of how he thinks, analyzes problems, and reacts to situations. Even though he doesn’t talk about feelings a lot, his behavior reveals what’s going on inside.

I have a second novel that includes chapters in alternating points of view, female (my protagonist) and male (a police detective). Compared to Archer Landis, I find the female protagonist harder to write. There’s too much “me” in there. She’s not me; I need her to bring her own self to the project. What I want to avoid is a book in which the main character seems to be the author projecting, what I call wish fulfillment literature. Action heroes are prone to this.

Thank you again, Kevin, and I hope your audience members who read Architect of Courage will enjoy it!

Have you read Architect of Courage yet? Order a copy here and check out that male point of view!

July/August EQMM and AHMM

reading, beach

Is it summer and the competition of outdoor activities that cause attention spans to dwindle and make a good collection of short stories extra appealing? Truthfully, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine are never out of season. Here are some highlights from their summer issues.

In EQMM:
“Serving Process” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch – anyone who’d save a litter of wet, half-starved and mewling kittens is a hero in my book
“The Secret Sharer” by W. Edward Blain – very clever and satisfying tale, and a nice example of how fiction can reflect the realities of covid yet not be about covid
“Powerball” by Jack Bunker – Yes, playing the lottery is a mug’s game, yet some people are just better players than others. In light of last week’s $1.337 billion Mega Millions jackpot IRL, this story should have a big audience!
“Storm Warning” by Dana Haynes is another table-turning tale that makes you feel that, sometimes, bad deeds work out exactly right!

And in AHMM:
“Death Will Take the High Line by Elizabeth Zelvin – Points to her for tackling a story that plunges right into gender identity issues without becoming polemical.
“The Conversation Killer” by Al Tucher – in lushly described Hawa`i, a rookie female police officer makes a big mistake.
“The Man Who Went Down Under” by Alexis Stefanovich-Thomson won the 15th annual Black Orchid Novella Award contest. The search for a missing diamond involves quite a few characters, notably, a young P.I.’s interfering and none-too-impressed mother.

Looking for Great Reading? It’s my quarterly newsletter. Sign up here and receive three prize-winning short stories!

“The Ring of Truth”

My short story protagonist Brianna Yamato—newly minted reporter for The Sweetwater Register, the fictional newspaper of Sweetwater, Texas—is on the story once again. Her latest exploit, “The Ring of Truth” is published in the August 2022 Mystery Magazine. Previously, she solved a four-person homicide and the death by rattlesnake bite of a wind-turbine repairman who had the makings of a potential boyfriend, but . . .

In this story, Brianna is a volunteer with the local community theater group putting on the comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This is a show my family and I have seen on stage a half-dozen times in various-sized productions—from amateur theater to Broadway (Nathan Lane). And the Zero Mostel movie is a perennial favorite when we need a pick-me-up.

Alas, in the Sweetwater production, the high school senior playing the romantic lead dies one night during rehearsal, and Brianna starts to dig into her story.

Because I’ve written four short stories about Brianna (three published), I have to keep in mind certain details about her world. Since I can’t count on my memory, I created a Word document titled “Facts about the Sweetwater Stories,” which lists the stories in chronological order and when they took place. It has bulleted facts about Brianna, not just her physical description but her way of working (“she tends to let interviewees talk” and “she matches their body language and expressions”), that she lives in a house—not an apartment—with her friend Ruth.

Brianna, being Japanese, tiny (and female) has to hold her own in a sea of big and tall Texas men. They’d love to patronize her, if she’d let them. In several of the stories, she gets comments like “you don’t look like a Brianna” and remarks about immigrants. So I established that her family arrived in California, where she was born and raised, in 1880. Similarly, in the current story, she receives an earful from an interviewee, father of the dead girl who wants her to stop her “medding.” Here’s how she sets him straight.

“You people—” He started to walk away.

“We journalists? Or we twenty-somethings?”

He came back and barked in my face. “You Orientals start your wars, let us settle your hash, then leave your crappy countries and move here, to enjoy everything America offers.”

Oh boy. I said, “My granddad and his brothers served in the US Army in World War II. You’ve heard of the Purple Heart battalion? His youngest brother was killed in Korea. And my dad and uncles fought in Vietnam. What was your unit?” I could hear my editor now.

To break off his death-stare, I said, “Kayla’s friends say nice things about her. I just wondered whether you’d noticed any change, anything unusual, before she died.”

“No. You people saw more of her than we did those last weeks.”

“Oh. We thespians.”

I also keep a list of the businesses she visits—the Triple Joe Café next door to the newspaper, the Southside Grill with its homestyle cooking and the names of its friendly servers, the Egg ‘n’ Oink where Brianna likes to track down police chief Hank Childers while he’s having his Sunday brunch.

When I was a kid, I had family who lived in Sweetwater and visited them every year. The picture in my mind of the community is no doubt vastly different from what the town is today. I read the newspaper online when I’m working on a story to bring myself forward a few decades. But the rattlesnakes are the same.

Unexpected Synchronicities

If you’re a frequent reader, sometimes the parallel threads from several books get all tangled up. Characters with the same/similar names in books by different authors. Intersecting plot lines. Or you read one book that gives you interesting background about something (Daughters of Yalta), and soon you read another dealing with the same events (Gods of Deception). You feel like you turned a corner and ran into a mirror.

Two books I’ve read recently were set in Venice—thankfully at totally different time periods (1612 on one hand and 1928, 1938, and 2002 on the other)—but identical geography and modes of transport, and—OK, this is a stretch—the third, a contemporary mystery about life on a canal in England.

The Gallery of Beauties by Nina Wachsman is a new historical mystery featuring an unlikely pair of protagonists—Belladonna, a famous and wealthy courtesan, and Diana, a rabbi’s daughter who lives in the Jewish ghetto. These beautiful women come to the attention of an artist creating portraits for a “Gallery of Beauties.” Intrigue is high in the city’s Council of Ten, whose mistrustful leaders vie with each other for power and prestige, and leading citizens’ fear of poisoning is so great they employ official tasters. Diana must slip out of the ghetto to pose for the artist, but the chance to wear beautiful clothing and mix with the city’s elite, including her new friend Belladonna, convinces her to ignore the curfew imposed on ghetto residents. Out in the city, she could be challenged at any time. When the subjects of the Gallery of Beauties begin to be murdered, the two women must unravel the mystery for their own survival. An indelible portrait of Venice in the 17th century.

The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen, narrated by Barrie Kreinik, is mostly set during the days leading up to World War II, when English schoolteacher and artist Juliet Browning begins a romance with the wealthy and devastatingly handsome son of a leading Venetian family. As the Nazis close in, Juliet delays her return home until it’s no longer possible to leave. Without papers and out in a city patrolled by fascists, she could be challenged at any time. (!) Sixty years later, when Juliet dies, her niece Caroline inherits her Venice sketchbook and keys to she doesn’t know what. It will be up to her to discover Aunt Lettie’s mysterious past. This book was too formulaic for me, in terms of the plot and the relationships. But again, Venice.

Idiot Wind by Michael Broihier is set on the Oxford Canal, which runs some 70 miles between Oxford and Hawkesbury in central England. The protagonist, Mac McGuire, with his 60-foot narrowboat, Idiot Wind, delivers food and fuel to boat owners up and down a central portion of this canal. The countryside is beautiful, the boat dwellers are quirky devotees to an idiosyncratic way of life, and it’s a peaceful one—that is, until dead bodies turn up in the canal waters. There’s a lot of mechanics involved in opening and closing the canal’s many locks, repetitive actions I actually found quite soothing. It gave a certain controlled rhythm to the story. No wild car chases, just going with the flow. For me, Broihier’s portrayal of life on the canal was a memorable one. But then, any story with boats is OK with me, and this was a dandy.

The Woman in the Library

When you read this latest psychological thriller by Sulari Gentill, The Woman in the Library, you may need to stop every so often and think, where am I? Its clever plot is like a set of nesting boxes, and you have to check which box you’re in. You may be familiar with Gentill’s ten historical novels featuring gentleman detective Rowland Sinclair, and, though this is not part of that series, it displays the same storytelling chops.

In this story, Australian author Hannah is writing a contemporary novel set in the United States. Her main character, Winifred (‘Freddie’) Kinkaid is also an author, working on a new book in the inspiring setting of the Boston Public Library. One day she finds herself at a table with three more young people and idly muses about them. They’d make great characters in her novel, she thinks. So, what you are reading are the chapters in Hannah’s novel, concerning Freddie and her new friends.

They’ve all four quietly checked each other out, but the ice is broken when a piercing scream shatters the library’s stillness. Oddly, the scream pulls them together. They speculate, start to chat, introduce themselves, and soon wander off for coffee as a group. The other woman, Marigold, heavily tattooed, has a rather obvious crush on their tablemate, Whit Metters, and the fourth is a handsome fellow named Cain McLeod. After that unusual bonding experience, the four spend much time together, especially when their curiosity is raised by the discovery of a murdered woman, presumably the screamer, under a table in the library meeting room.

Hannah (fictional, remember) is a best-selling author back in Australia, and as she’s writing about daily life in another country, she accepts the offer from a Boston-based fan to review her chapters and look for anachronisms in vocabulary—‘jumper’ instead of ‘sweater,’ ‘crisps’ instead of ‘potato chips,’ and the like—and location details. This man, Leo Johnson, is also an author, very down in the dumps about the publishing industry’s lack of interest in his book. Chapters of Hannah’s book are followed by a ‘Dear Hannah’ reaction from Leo.

At first, Leo’s advice is confined to minor factual matters and minor adjustments in descriptions. The fact that the fictional Freddie encounters these cultural quirks makes sense, as she’s Australian, too. She’s able to work on her book and live in Boston’s upscale Back Bay, thanks to a fellowship. A neighboring flat is occupied by another fellowship recipient, a character whom Hannah names Leo Johnson. (A third Leo is buried in the name McLeod. Significant?) Her correspondent is delighted at being recognized in this way, which may contribute to his growing intrusiveness. He makes corrections, fights for his suggestions, and sends photos he thinks Hannah might (should?) use for inspiration. His long-distance efforts to encroach on her creative territory made me increasingly uneasy! Creepy!

Meanwhile, in Hannah’s novel, the four friends learn unsettling revelations about Cain McLeod’s past. (Real) author Gentill plays the gradual erosion of trust nicely. Nor is the killing finished. McLeod seems to be the police’s top suspect.

The relationships among the friends are well developed, and, as Freddie gradually falls in love with McLeod, you hope she’s not getting in over her head. Not only is there the risk that he’s not whom he pretends to be, as Marigold warns her, there’s also the inconvenient fact that the police are watching his every move. Her proximity may put her on their radar too. Not until she and McLeod visit an Aussie bar does she recognize how hard she’s been trying to fit in.

This is a very readable book, with a strong sense of menace generated by Leo’s correspondence. I enjoyed it!

Order here from Amazon

The Quarter Storm

Veronica G. Henry’s The Quarter Storm introduces a stubborn young Haitian-American woman, Mambo Reina Dumond, working as a vodou practitioner in New Orleans. This is not a genre of book I’d usually read, but I definitely enjoyed it. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary with any book involving the supernatural, but Reina was so believable, it wasn’t a difficult stretch to just go with it.

As you might imagine, Reina’s social circle is not the usual. Her best friend owns a bar/restaurant, and he is trying without great success to teach her to cook. When she needs help finding someone, she calls on a young woman who has no fixed address. And her ex-boyfriend (hard to say how ex he really is) is a New Orleans police detective who has no patience for vodou practices and traditions.

Trouble begins when a young man is murdered in what appears to be a ritual way in the apartment above a French Quarter vodou shop. The shop owner is arrested. Reina, whose vodou practice is geared toward helping, not hurting people, nevertheless thinks it’s ridiculous to believe a practitioner would jeopardize her business by committing such a vicious crime on her own premises. She sets out to prove the woman innocent.

The city’s wealthiest and most successful practitioner of their branch of vodou refuses to help. He, her father, and everyone else is warning her off the case, but Reina keeps on digging. Such a blot on the reputation of her style of vodou is intolerable.

Reading this book, I really felt as if I’d spent some time in an exotic place, much like my experience with the other two New Orleans books lately reviewed here, which explore totally different sides of this iconic city,.

Order The Quarter Storm here from Amazon
Or here from an independent bookseller.

Nine Lives

Author Peter Swanson has created another lively homage to classic mystery puzzles in his new novel, Nine Lives. Much like his earlier book, Rules for Perfect Murders, several of the characters in this new story recognize parallels to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (Ten Little Indians) and The ABC Murders—but Swanson gives these plot devices his own diabolical modern twists.

Nine strangers receive a letter containing a single sheet of paper with nine names on it in alphabetical order. The names aren’t familiar, the envelope lacks any identification. The recipients react in predictable, but different ways. A couple of them ignore the letter completely, several rack their brains trying to figure out what it means. Ultimately, most chalk it up to some species of computer mistake. Only one views it with much suspicion. She’s a female FBI agent, and it’s her job to be suspicious.

A day or two later, when a man whose name is on the list is found dead, the keen ears of the agent’s FBI supervisor perk up. The deceased, Frank Hopkins, was a man in his seventies and owned the Windward Resort in Kennewick, Maine. If he drank a little too much and got a little hazy at times, what killed him was having his head pushed into a tide pool where he drowned, a mysterious letter crumpled in his hand.

When a second person whose name is on the list is found shot to death, the possibility of a coincidence is too remote to contemplate. The FBI agent calls it “the second plane.” When the first airplane hit the World Trade Towers on 9/11, the shocked witnesses all assumed it was a tragic accident; when the second plane hit, everyone’s assessment changed, immediately and completely.

The FBI begins a massive effort to track down the seven remaining people, all but two of whom they do eventually identify and question. The recipients are clueless and the police offer protection. This makes no difference at all, as the next victim dies in his bed with a police officer sitting in the driveway. Now you’re firmly in And Then There Were None territory.

The people on the list are all interesting in their own ways, mostly under 40, but wildly diverse in where they live and what they do (aspiring actor, singer-songwriter, college professor, kept woman—does anyone still know what that means?—retiree, oncology nurse). Surprisingly, they’re mostly not deeply frightened, even as the body count rises.

Meanwhile, you can’t help but troll the text for clues of buried commonalities among the letter recipients. Several are estranged from their parents, three are in the arts, loosely speaking, two have cats (nine lives?). That kind of thing. You’ll likely enjoy trying to work out the puzzle Swanson lays before you. I did. Of course, one little fact has been withheld that would clinch your theory, but Swanson does provide enough information to get there without it. This book strikes me as an ideal vacation read, as it moves swiftly through the mayhem, while retaining a light touch.

Find Her First

Former newspaper journalist Emma Christie’s second novel, Find Her First, could be called a crime thriller, which it is, or a murder mystery, which it also is. Trying to figure out what is really going on in a sea of red herrings is a big part of this book’s enormous pleasures.

The story takes place in Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside, where Andy Campbell and his wife Stef are dedicated hikers. Scotland’s well-described forests and cliffs and vistas are an essential backdrop to their story.

The book opens with Andy, apparently on trial for murder, awaiting the verdict. He’s an experienced paramedic, but has he taken a life? Though the contours of his crime are not yet defined, his sadness that events reached this point is clear.

You’re left waiting for the court’s judgment, which won’t come for many pages. Instead, the narrative goes back six months to the previous summer. Chapters taking Andy’s point of view alternate with those written by Betty Stevenson, the housecleaner for Andy and his wife Stef, also a paramedic, but on mandatory leave.

Fate and whether it’s possible to escape it or to take it into your own hands is a major theme of the book. Betty is fond of Stef and desperately eager for closeness with someone. She believes in luck—the luck of a shiny penny found on the street—and in fate. Being a friend to Stef, she thinks, is her fate. And now, it seems, Stef is missing. Betty is going to Do Something About It.

Betty and Andy both had traumatic childhoods that shaped their current lives, with Andy determined to save people and Betty, in her own way, trying to recapture the innocence of those much younger days. A few chapters are in Stef’s point of view from a year before the trial. All these time shifts can be a mite confusing, but in the end make sense.

All three of the main characters have regrets. Fractured family relationships. A romantic indiscretion. Lies they’ve told. A series of miscarriages. Author Christie spins out a complicated, entangling web and keeps you guessing about where its strands will lead. Are their current challenges related to the past, the present, or the future?

She writes with a close-in psychological perspective, and you come to have a rather deep understanding of the principal characters. You know why they act as they do, even when another course might be objectively better. In a sense, it’s an object lesson in the perils of partial information. You have only partial information too, and not until the end do you learn what the story is really about. An excellent read.

Order here from Amazon.

Or here from IndieBound.